Nancy Bush Ellis, the sister of one president and aunt of another, who for a time devoted herself to Democratic causes despite her family dynasty’s Republican lineage, died Sunday at an assisted living facility in Concord, Massachusetts. She was 94.
Her son Alexander Ellis III said the cause was complications related to COVID-19. She was hospitalized Dec. 30 with a fever and tested positive for the Coronavirus, he said. Her symptoms abated within days, he added, but her general health was failing.
Smart, athletic and outgoing, Ellis exuded the patrician charm of a bygone era, Jon Meacham, the historian and biographer of President George Bush, said in a phone interview. She was active, he added, at a time when public service was perceived as noble and politicians from the other party were not regarded as enemies.
“She was a Katharine Hepburn-like figure,” he said.
Unlike most of her family, Ellis was a liberal Democrat for decades, promoting environmental and antipoverty causes, raising money for the NAACP and serving as head of the New England section of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Nonetheless, after one of her brothers, George H.W. Bush, announced he was entering the Republican primary for president in 1979, “there was no more fiercely loyal person on the planet,” Ellis said in an email.
“She was a wonderfully energetic campaigner and cheerleader for her brother,” he said.
She campaigned too for her nephew George W. Bush, who was governor of Texas before he became president in 2000. When Bush ran for reelection in 2004, Ellis campaigned for him not only in the United States but also in London, Paris and Frankfurt, Germany, on behalf of Republicans Abroad, an organization that encourages Americans overseas to register and vote.
“She was a Democrat for whom family came first,” Meacham said.
As an active environmentalist, Ellis was a board member and honorary director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. She raised money to establish the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in Belize. She also served on the board of Pact, which fights poverty worldwide.
She was quoted as saying, in reference to her brother, that for many years, “I was out in what George calls ‘deep left.’ ”
Nancy Walker Bush was born on Feb. 4, 1926, in Milton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Her father, Prescott Sheldon Bush, worked on Wall Street before he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut in 1952. Her mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, energetic and forceful, raised Nancy and her four brothers to be modest and socially responsible but also highly competitive.
“Her philosophy was, Give your all, try your hardest, do your best,” Ellis said of her mother in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1991 while her brother George was campaigning for reelection as president.